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Batteries Not Included

October 25, 2010

Imagination: the formation of a mental image of something that is not perceived as real and is not present to the senses.

What ever happened to the idea that children learn best through unstructured play?  You know what I mean … using their imaginations to turn everyday objects (pots and pans, the cushions from the living room couch and a couple of blankets, a giant cardboard box) into whatever they want them to be, or playing with active toys (building blocks, dolls, cars, trucks) that give them the freedom to create whole new environments that they alone control.   Only by using their imaginations can children fully explore ideas, experiment with concepts, and learn new things.*

So why has imagination taken a back seat to technology of late? Why do the majority of toys being advertised invariably include the words ‘Batteries Not Included’?  Since when do preschoolers (or infants and toddlers’) need toys that run on batteries?  Are we trying to teach children NOT to think for themselves? NOT to be able to reason? NOT to find joy in simple play? NOT to use their imaginations? I’m sorely afraid we are.

Playing Dress up in the 1960sA half century ago (when my generation was young) girls played with dolls (I had Marge and Gower Champion paper dolls, Tiny Tears and Betsy-Wetsy baby dolls, and – of course – Barbie dolls), and boys occupied their playtime with building blocks (Tinkertoys and Lincoln Logs) and die-cast cars (Matchbox, Tonka, Hot Wheels). We all ‘played dress-up’ (we had the equivalent of Mr. Dressup’s ‘Tickle Trunk’ in the toy cupboard under our basement stairs; it included some of my grandmother’s ancient bustled dresses, my oldest sister’s strapless tulle prom dresses, several years’ worth of homemade Hallowe’en costumes, and masks and other props that my mother had collected from who-knows-where).

We played Parcheesi, Scrabble, Sorry, and Clue, and – by the mid-60s – Twister.  Saturday morning television consisted primarily of live-action shows like My Friend Flicka, Lassie, and Sky King; cartoons were pretty much limited to The Jetsons, The Flintstones, and Rocky and Bullwinkle. None of the toys we had were ‘product tie-ins’ to TV shows, or required batteries to operate.

80s Christmas ToysWhen my own children were growing up in the eighties, there were hundreds of new types of toys on the market (play sets, building sets, racing cars with tracks).  Almost all of them required active participation on the part of the child – they and their imaginations were still ‘in charge’ of what and how they played. At the same time, TV had become a much more pervasive part of everyday life.  Saturday morning was filled with the fast-paced silliness of Ren and Stimpy, Tiny Toons, and Animaniacs, as well as shows like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Transformers, and Thunder Cats – which were essentially half-hour marketing tools for associated action figures and related toys.  But even though I bought the boys some (okay, a LOT) of those show-related toys, they still had to use their own imaginations to bring the characters ‘to life’ off screen.  They also spent a significant amount of time playing with the best toy ever invented – Lego – and we had weekly family game nights where we’d haul out board games like Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, and UpWords (all good for encouraging critical thinking and decision-making).  Very few of the toys my kids owned required batteries (and the ones that did were usually the first to be abandoned because they were – ultimately – boring!)

The trend recently, however, is toys that are all about (and sometimes only about) technology.  If you watch TV at all, you’ve seen the ads for everything from crib mobiles and activity centres for infants, through farm, kitchen and ‘racing’ sets for toddlers, to ‘smart’ sport toys, musical instruments, and computer-type games for school-aged children – that all require batteries to operate.  Some of these are reinventions of ‘classic’ toys my children owned – but now they provide ‘feedback’ (lights, sounds, etc.) when the child ‘interacts’ with them.  This is, I suppose, designed to offer instant gratification (but, I must assume they also provide instant disappointment when/if nothing happens because the batteries have died), as well as ‘edutainment’.  Numerous other toys from various manufacturers are either electronic versions of ‘old favourites’ (including ‘board games’), web-enabled ‘virtual play environments’ (that you can only access when you buy a related toy), or battery-operated dolls, animals, and action figures lifted right from TV programs or popular culture. (Wave the rattle and Winnie-the-Pooh laughs and gyrates; stop waving the rattle and he stops. Do it again. Ooooh, aaaahhh. Now what?) 

Old Fashioned Toys

What happened to old-fashioned 'play'???

So, answer me this – when a toy lights up, sings, whirrs, makes noise, spins, plays music, reads, answers questions for the child – or performs any number of other ‘exciting actions’ (or if its some type of electronic or ‘computer’ game/toy that undermines the process of thinking/reasoning) exactly how much  imagination is the child using?  My guess is very little (or none)!  What it does is train the child to be passive – to let the ‘toy’ do the playing while they simply sit back and watch, or ‘interact’ the way the toy wants them to (they’re playing by the toy’s rules, not the child’s).  At the same time, it teaches them that play isn’t ‘fun’ unless they get a ‘reward’ from doing it.  What’s wrong with that picture? 

Technology has touched just about every facet of our lives, and improved many aspects as a result. However, it has also made (some of) us very lazy – most particularly, the ‘Net Generation’ (also referred to as ‘Millenials’, ‘Generation Next’, ‘Generation Y’), and those that are following them.  Born in 1980 or later, these ‘kids’ (some of whom are approaching 30) have grown up with technology – they know only ATMs, computers, the Internet, cellphones, CDs, DVDs and MP3s, etc.  They depend on technology, and many see it as an extension of themselves.  (NOTE:  yes, I am generalizing here, but comments relate to ‘a majority’ … there are always exceptions).

And here’s the rub – they have become so accustomed to having information ‘at their fingertips’ they’ve stopped asking questions, searching for (different) answers, and thinking for themselves. They expect all the ‘whiz-bang’ sounds and images they’ve grown accustomed to, and the instant gratification that goes along with it -but they want it all to happen without any active participation on their part.  Quite simply – they’ve stopped using their imaginations.

Today's Disinterested StudentsI spent thirty-odd years of my life in the community college system, teaching to an audience of primarily twenty-somethings.  Up until about ten years ago, students were generally keen to listen, learn, and apply what was being taught (again, this is a generalization, but ‘the majority’ were fairly dedicated).  Then, something happened in the year 2000 (the first year the ‘Gen Ys’ entered the post-secondary system) that caught most of us (College and University teachers) completely off-guard.  Instead of eager young faces in the classroom, we were seeing bored, disinterested, jaded young people who didn’t want to attend lectures, take notes, do assigned readings, or complete homework.  They complain about every assignment, every test, every project.  They demand PowerPoint presentations posted online, lecture notes made available, videos and games (and the use of their cellphones for non-educational purposes) in the classroom.   They want the answers to problems given to them, rather than doing the research themselves.  They expect to get high-paying jobs when they graduate (they don’t want to start ‘at the bottom’) regardless of how much they really know, and they insist they should graduate with high marks, whether they apply themselves in the classroom or not. And it’s getting worse every year!  The idea of ‘reward without effort’ is a widespread and powerful force.

The world’s greatest inventors are ‘imagineers’ – people who can take an abstract concept and turn it into something new and exciting, either by transforming existing objects or through reasoning (based on knowledge acquired through thinking).  They ‘see’ something that doesn’t exist, and they make it real!  Certainly many of them employ technology – as a tool, an enabler – to assist them. But the unbridled joy of discovery – of creating (or imagining) something that no one else has done before – is what drives them.  That ability – to use our imaginations – is what put us ‘on top’ as a species – humans are (so far as we know) the only species on the planet with the capacity to think, to develop, to create at this level.  But we’re losing it! And that’s a scary thought! With fewer ‘next generation’ inventors capable of imagining great things, how can our species continue to evolve? Technology won’t solve the world’s problems – great thinkers will!

I don’t know if it’s too late to turn things around, but I’d like to suggest that this ‘giving’ season, you look for toys for your children (or grandchildren) that don’t say ‘Batteries Not Included’. Instead, find things that provide them with the opportunity – the challenge – of using their imaginations – to play, to think, to reason, to experiment, to grow – all the way to … the other side of 55.

*Coincidentally – and I don’t really believe in coincidence, but that’s another article altogether – I wrote this essay on Sunday afternoon, and on Monday morning this ‘quote of the day’ arrived in my inbox: ‘A child is not a vase to be filled, but a fire to be lit’  … Francois Rabelais (French Renaissance writer, doctor and humanist).  Couldn’t have said it better myself!

Batteries Not Required

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One Comment
  1. Pat Segato permalink
    October 27, 2010 4:39 am

    I couldn’t agree with you more. We went to our oldest grandkids’ house to carve pumpkins and they wanted to know where the carving tools were and also the items to make a face. They we’re completely surprised when my husband just told them to draw a face and he carved it with a knife. It seems if they don’t have the games to play on the television they really don’t know what to do with themselves – and either do the parents.

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